I unhitched the camper just off the road in a trailhead parking area. It wasn’t occupied, and with the rain and wind of late, I didn’t expect company anytime soon. A lonely, soggy firepit adorned the center of the lot, but that was the only sign that anybody had been there of late.
I’d made my way up the Richardson Highway in the rain from Glenallen over the course of the morning, and predictably missed the turn onto the Denali Highway the first time I drove past it at Paxson. I ended up high on the Gulkana River at an overlook and took some pleasure in seeing some far-ranging sockeyes staging before they ventured into Summit Lake to spawn. These red, hook-jawed behemoths entered the Copper River sometime in late May or early June, and here they were, some 200 miles later, near the end of their lives, but about to birth another generation.
But I wasn’t after salmon. Years ago, I became a grayling junkie. In the early 2000s, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department had re-established a fishable population of Arctic grayling on the upper Ruby River, only a few hours from home. I made the trip a few times to catch fluvial grayling (fish that live and spawn in rivers), and I was smitten. These remarkable salmonids are all but gone from our Lower 48 rivers and persist today in small pockets where they’re native (like in the Ruby and Big Hole rivers) or in mountain lakes, where they’re not. Here, though, along the desolate highway that runs north to Fairbanks, grayling could be seen meandering in and out of the big sockeyes, often earning the ire of the aggressive salmon.
From the overlook, I identified some truly large grayling swimming among the migrating reds—a couple pushed 20 inches. I was tempted to pull the 4-weight from the back of the truck, but I’d been driving most of the day and wanted to get to my Denali Highway destination and … well … more grayling.
I must have blinked on the drive north as I passed through Paxson, because I found the turnoff with relative ease on the drive back down the hill. The Denali Highway stretches about 135 miles between Paxson on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell, which rests in the shadow of the mountain from which the road takes its name. The “highway”—it’s a bumpy, washboard-ridden gravel road—might be one of the fishiest routes in the country, and for dry-fly anglers looking to chase grayling, it needs to be atop the destination list. But, might I suggest, you order up some better weather?
Flanked on the north by the Alaska Range and on the south by the Wrangell and the Chugach ranges, this lonely stretch of public Bureau of Land Management country catches summer rains that bounce off the flanks of these storied mountains. This desolate land is veined by small, snow- and glacier-fed streams that literally burst with native grayling, and moose and caribou wander the willows and berry bushes amid both black and brown bears, wolves … and the occasional fly fisher.
As I drove west out of Paxson, the sky still spitting a consistent drizzle, I looked at my fuel gauge and realized that I might be digging into my 5-gallon reserve tank before I could get to the next fuel stop at Tangle Lakes. When you’re hauling your temporary home behind your rig, and you’re 2,000 miles away from that stick-built beauty you’ve all but abandoned for the better part of three months, these little things, like gasoline and propane and water become top-of-mind issues. Especially when you’re literally in the middle of nowhere, largely existing at the mercy of good tires, a dependable 6-cylinder Toyota engine and salmon jerky.
When you’re hauling your temporary home behind your rig, and you’re 2,000 miles away from that stick-built beauty you’ve all but abandoned for the better part of three months, these little things, like gasoline and propane and water become top-of-mind issues. Especially when you’re literally in the middle of nowhere, largely existing at the mercy of good tires, a dependable 6-cylinder Toyota engine and salmon jerky.
I made it to Tangle Lakes Inn, got my gas at a painful per-gallon price, salved only by the Denver Bronco flag waving proudly in the Alaskan rain, and motored on down the road to set up camp. I’ve become a believer in the old adage that the journey is the destination. It proved true last summer as I hauled a small house on wheels all the way to the Arctic and back. As I dropped the last support jack on the camper and looked around at the new front-door view for about the 20th time since I left my driveway in Idaho, I took a deep breath.
Off to the north, a massive glacier meandered down the shoulders of the Alaska Range. At its foot, some unnamed, rain-swollen stream picked up the blue-gray meltwater and flowed west toward the Susitna. I reached inside the camper door and flipped a switch. The awning motored quietly out over the wet grass and gravel, shading my new front porch from the drizzle. From “the box” behind the wheel well, I pulled out a camp chair and set it under the awning. Within minutes, I was enjoying a beer in the 50-degree mist, content to watch ice melt.
There would be time for grayling. They’re willing fish and there was no need to rush. Like that glacier, I’d take my time.